"The Buddhists say there are 149 ways to God. I'm not looking for God, only for myself, and that is far more complicated. God has had a great deal written about Him; nothing has been written about me. God is bigger, like my mother, easier to find, even in the dark. I could be anywhere, and since I can't describe myself, I can't ask for help."
There are few people more influential in our lives than our omnipotent, overbearing, always loving, larger-than-life Jewish mothers. They instill those very values and skills into our identities that have enabled the Jewish people to survive for generations in lands far away from the biblical homeland, in which religious and cultural traditions did not exist. Many Russian-speaking Jewish mothers (including my own) worry about what will happen to the values that they spent years building their homes around when her children leave the home to pursue higher educations. Will her children discover themselves by changing their values? Will they reaffirm them and return home? Will they bring them to a new place? These fears stem from uncertainty, due to the fact that the values of Russian-speaking Jewry are so un-paralleled, that there are very few substantial structures organized around them. Away from the home, where would one go to explore a Russian-speaking Jewish identity? Where does an intelligent, cosmopolitan, Russian-speaking Jewish girl from New York City go to discover herself, in a venue far away (but not too far!) from the maternal home, where the only traditions that exist are those of term papers and parties? To Brandeis University, of course.
I can think of no better environment for the exploration of one’s Russian-Jewish self. Brandeis is a unique place, as far as university campuses go—it is a microcosm of the global community, nourished by an atmosphere of strong Jewish values, rigorous academics, vibrant student life, and commitments to social justice across the board. On this campus, tolerance is the norm, intellectual curiosity is abundant, and questioning the world is encouraged. Everyone here is invested in having the students succeed, not just academically, but also in finding themselves and discovering purpose and meaning. Much like the maternal womb, Brandeis University is the perfect incubator for maturing and educating the next generation of socially conscious and just leaders—also known as citizens of the world. This is part of the reason why a program such as the Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian Jewry can thrive here—every single student I have ever encountered on this campus genuinely wants to change the world, is open to new ideas, and most importantly, is a college student trying to find his/her own identity, and subsequently, place in the world.
The Brandeis-Genesis Institute for Russian-Jewry came into my life halfway through my Brandeis journey, so I had already been pawing through the dark on my own for two years to find my identity. But it was the Institute’s very creation that turned the light on in the dark, illuminating that which I had been searching for. I was not looking for God or Judaism—I was at Brandeis, and Jewish life was all around me. However, it was the kind of Jewish life that is only applicable to mainstream American Jewry—everyone knew everyone else from summer camp, and performing religious rituals correctly was more important than actually connecting with something larger than oneself. So I went the other way—I became involved in the Russian-speaking community at Brandeis by joining Russian Club (eventually becoming president) and by taking Russian language and literature courses (eventually becoming a Teaching Assistant for Russian 10A). In these Russian-speaking circles, most of my peers were, in fact, Russian-speaking Jews (this is Brandeis after all), and many of them shared my sentiments on the insensitivity of the greater American Jewish community to our distinct background, which included a mix of Soviet mentality, close family ties, Socialist work ethics, emphasis on education, traditions of Communism, the immigrant experience, Jewish values, and overly-demanding parents. However, even though we identified with each other, there was no organized framework in which we could explore these similarities and understand them. BGI’s creation was the validation that Russian-speaking Jewish youth at Brandeis needed—that we were special, that we had unique values and experiences, and that there were others just like us. This validation allowed me to reach out and embrace my identity; it was what I had spent a lifetime searching for: a definition, of myself, for myself. With that definition came a host of commitments, community outreach projects, retreats, readings, guest speakers, activities, and much more. And despite the generous financial awards that allowed me the opportunity to pursue academic interests outside of the Jewish spectrum, the greatest reward of my BGI experience was the purpose and the meaning that came with defining my identity, and the reaffirmation of the significance of the values my mother had instilled.
What have I learned through my involvement in the BGI? Russian-speaking Jews are a unique sub-set of the greater Jewish community in that we do not interact with Judaism on a primarily religious level, and that is okay. Our Jewish identities do not depend on the existence of God, but rather on the existence of millennia of suffering and persecution, cultural traditions, social communities, and core values. The ties that bind us are, in my opinion, arguably stronger and more meaningful than religious observance alone. This is part of the reason it is so difficult to establish a concrete Russian-speaking Jewish community around one focal point—unlike the greater American Jewish community, we cannot be bound to each other by a tangible notion such as God. This has been explained before, and better than I could, by Jeanette Winterson, a British author, who did not write it for this purpose, though it strangely seems to fit—we are not looking for God, we are looking for ourselves, which is far more complicated; our Russian-speaking Jewish identities are not written about in volumes and they are not easy to find in the dark. And because there has been a lack of attention to the specific needs of our diverse community in the past, it is becoming increasingly harder for newer generations of Russian-speaking Jewish youth to be able to describe themselves and to meaningfully engage with their roots. BGI’s continued existence is the most progressive and successful effort established to date to address these needs, to aid in forming a core Russian-speaking Jewish identity, to shed light on the community, and to develop a generation of young adults that can lead this community and preserve its unique values in environments far away from Brandeis University and from the Jewish state.
Identity is found by identifying. This happens through education, through perseverance, through community involvement, and through commitments. These are the core traits upon which BGI is built, because their sum is identity, and so often identity is linked with purpose. My purpose is not to be a Jewish professional—I graduated Brandeis University with a double B.S. major in Health: Science, Society, and Policy and Russian Studies, and am now pursuing my M.S. at Brandeis’ Heller School for Social Policy and Management in International Health Policy and Management. My professional interests are broader than the realm of Jewish life and I lead a completely secular lifestyle, engaging with Judaism on social, cultural, and spiritual levels, rather than religious ones—which is perfectly all right. But because of my involvement with BGI, with the Russian Language Program, with Jewish learning, with the Brandeis Russian Club, with the Russian-speaking Jewish elderly at the Hebrew Rehabilitation Center, and most importantly, with the other fellows of the BGI, I have the knowledge, leadership skills, and community connections to be able to meaningfully interact with the Russian-speaking Jewish community anywhere my other passions take me. The Russian-speaking Jewish identity that I discovered through my experiences at Brandeis University with the BGI is what brings me meaning, and consequently, what brings me home—home to New York City, home to my biblical homeland, and home to my mother, with our secular traditions, Soviet roots, and Jewish values.